From the Psalter:
We have heard with our ears, O God, our forefathers have told us,
the deeds you did in their days, in the days of old.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 44:1 (NRSV) – December 16, 2013.)
Today’s evening psalm begins with a verse reminiscent of the psalm verse from which my blog takes its name:
That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children. (Ps 78:3)
These psalms speak to the obligation of the generations to communicate from one to another the lore of the faith, the stories that make us who we are, the tales that cement the People of God together. This is a duty which is common across the gulfs of religion, culture, and nationality; any group of people which considers itself a unified society must communicate generation to generation the knowledge and the values around which the society coheres. One generation must tell and the next must listen; the older must teach; the younger, learn.
In the past few days two news items caught my attention. The first was a report of findings of sociologists that Americans are less mobile in the second decade of the 21st Century than we were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. People in our country are not moving from place to place, not changing residences as frequently as they used to. Those doing the research did not venture an explanation of why this is, but they offered possible reasons including the much higher costs of relocation, the change from a manufacturing to a service economy, and the homogeneity of both the current workforce and the current job market. Whatever the reasons, the nation seems to be returning to a more settled way of life, perhaps one similar in some ways to the agrarian society of the nation’s youth. This means that stories of affinity and location, the tales that form neighborhoods and cultures, the social economy of the small community will become more important.
The second news item, however, suggests that settled communities and social economies are not forming, that they are instead being destroyed. The story concerned the way in which the large corporations that form the basis of our service and information based economy (Facebook, Google, Twitter, cell phone companies, and so forth) are moving into and taking over the urban landscape. Because these companies need large amounts of space, their entry into the urban real estate market as buyers drives up the cost of office and commercial space, often to a rate that small retailers, cafes, restaurants, and other local businesses cannot afford. This, in turn, leads those smaller businesses to go out of operation. In addition, these corporations are providing “full service campuses” for their employees – providing gymnasiums and recreational facilities, dining facilities, all the ancillary services previously provided by the smaller businesses. This exacerbates the small, local businesses’ problem and accelerates their demise. The full-service corporate campuses and the absence of those small retail firms, cafes, and restaurants mean that the normal “meeting places” of society are disappearing. The employees of different businesses, the constituencies of competing corporate societies no longer have either need or place to interact.
These two trends seem to me to be incompatible. As we become more settled and have greater need for the organs of society that create communal coherence, we are also being fractured by the economic engines driving us to be more settled; the corporations which undergird the service-information economy are (perhaps inadvertently) demolishing the small-business economy that fosters human community in settled societies.
Now someone will say, “But there is the internet. Those service-information corporations, through the internet, provide an alternative to the public spaces, the small-business and social interactions of earlier settled communities.” Yes, to an extent that is so. But the internet and social media cannot replace the one-on-one, the one-with-many flesh-and-blood interactions of humankind. We need those in-the-flesh moments, to see another’s face, to hear his or her inflections, tones-of-voice, sighs, and chuckles, even to smell his or her sweat, breath, or perfume.
I am not blaming the Googles, the Twitters, the Facebooks for the loss of what sociologist Robert Putnam called “social capital” (see Bowling Alone), but I am suggesting that it is our responsibility to use the technologies and media they offer in appropriate ways, ways that enhance rather than disrupt the formation and sustaining of human community. I am suggesting that the owners, executives, managers, employees, and customers of those corporations share in that responsibility.
We cannot with integrity and authenticity say that we “have heard with our ears [what] our forefathers have told us” if we have only seen a Tweet, viewed a Facebook page, or read a blog entry. We cannot with integrity and authenticity say that we are not hiding the story of our community from our children if we are not sharing that story with one another in person. If we are to sing these psalms authentically, we must tell with our own voices, hear with our own ears, see with our own eyes, not with those of technology. It is our corporate responsibility.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.